Category Archives: Current events

But Christmas was over ages ago! (Oh, no it wasn’t!)

(British readers will probably find the headline for this post trite, a cliche; American readers probably won’t know why.  Read on to find out.)

You think Christmas is long gone?  There’s one Christmas tradition in Britain that begins in earliest November, and in some places runs well past the end of January, without anybody complaining that it starts too early or stays too long.  And it’s almost invariably known by a diminutive of its proper name without anybody—not even me—complaining that people shorten the name.  And that’s panto.

The Genie of the Ring and the Genie of the Lamp at a neighbourhood production of Aladdin this season

The Genie of the Ring (Alison Moulden) and the Genie of the Lamp (Andy Wells) at a neighbourhood production of Aladdin this season

Yes, it’s short for pantomime, but there’re no coyly silent mimes grinning from under berets; panto is louder than most theatre performances, because the audience gets to talk back.  A lot. It’s not panto without audience participation.

A panto is ostensibly a play for children, although I’ve read that well over 90% of people in Britain see a panto every year, a total which must include people who, like me, have no children to give them an excuse.  They dramatize a few traditional children’s stories (generally Cinderella, Snow White, Babes in the Wood, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, Dick Whittington, or Aladdin), but it’s common to see whole families showing up with three or even four generations.  In the best pantos—well, in my opinion—a lot of the lines work on two levels: straightforward and wholesome for the kiddies, with a second and ever-so-slightly racy sense for adults.

Abenazar, the villain, played by

Good vs. Evil stories sink or swim on their bad guys, and this production lucked into a wonderful villain, the sorcerer Abenazer, as played by Lara Milne, with enormous swishing cape and truly evil chuckle.  In another of those British-English spelling variations for words ending in -er, Abenazer appeared in the programme for this production as “Abanaza”.  (In the edition of the Arabian Nights I have, he’s only called “the African magician”, and has no name.)

All pantos offer dastardly villains, whom we are encouraged to boo.  Each stars a principal boy: a plucky young male hero played by a beautiful young lady.  Each includes a pantomime Dame: an older female character (or two, in the case of Cinderella’s evil stepsisters), played by an older man.  Assorted members of the company handle the parts that complete the story, as well as the musical numbers, slapstick sketches and other wacky mayhem the director has dreamed up.  The most fun I’ve had in years came when some of these players of unnamed parts—in this case, the Lost Boys and the “redskins” (ah, yes; we’ll come to them in a minute) of Peter Pan—handed out grey, foam-rubber, cube-shaped “rocks” to the crowd.  (Sorry, I don’t know the British term for foam rubber, although I do know it isn’t foam rubber.)  They told us to wait for a particular line, and then defend Peter Pan from Captain Hook by throwing our rocks.  Our cue came in the second act.  The air filled with flying grey blocks.  We threw ours from the ground-floor seats, got pelted with rocks that didn’t make it to the stage from the audience in the balcony, picked those up and threw them at the stage, too, while the pirates on stage picked up all the rocks they could and threw ’em back; it was total bedlam, and complete second-childhood bliss, all to the music of the 1812 Overture.


A theatre poster for an 1886 panto, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A theatre poster for an 1886 panto, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In calmer productions, the cast may throw candy into the crowd, or ask you to check your seat to see whether there’s a golden key hidden under it, or just ask for volunteers to come on stage to help with some of the nonsense.  Inevitably, there will be traditional lines for the audience, a sort of call-and-response that all British-born people seem to know, apparently having absorbed it with their mother’s milk.

The hero, you see, depends on the audience for messages about some of the action.  Often it’s that the villain is creeping up, which the audience indicates by shouting out together “He’s beHIIIIND you!”, to which the usual response is “What?” so that the audience can shout the line again and again, only louder.  Granted, this makes the characters seem a bit dim; they also seem rather contrary, going by the traditional disagreements, which go something like this:

Dame, as Evil Stepsister: “The glass slipper is MINE!”

Audience: “Oh, no, it isn’t!”

Dame: “Oh, yes, it is!”

Audience: “Oh, no, it isn’t!”

Dame: “Oh, yes…”

(Repeat until the last moment before it gets tiresome; timing is everything.)

Widow Twankay and the Emperor of China

Widow Twankey (Rosemary Woodcock) and the Emperor of China (Jo Heaphy).  Rosemary gets special credit for stepping into the role when the gent who was playing the Dame had to cancel; she did the cast proud, at one point turning a line she did remember–”I don’t know what to do”–into a hilarious cry for help–”I don’t know what to do.  I’ve no idea what to do [to crew offstage] Tell me what to do!

 This exchange may be the essence of panto.  Do an internet search on panto and I guarantee you’ll find headlines like “Traditional Panto on the Way Out? Oh, no, it isn’t!” or “Panto as Demanding for Actors as Serious Theatre – oh, yes, it is!”

Then there are audience lines I just don’t get, which nobody has been able to explain, most notably “Oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumper”.  Even if you take into account that oompah and jumper rhyme (well, sort of) in standard British English, it’s still nonsense.  But much of panto is nonsense.

Sometimes, though, it’s politically incorrect nonsense.  Peter Pan includes a tribe of “redskins” that I would venture to say would not be seen on any American stage today, certainly  not under the name redskins.  And then there’s Aladdin, which is set in China.  China?

Dan Leno, famous for his Dames, as Widow Twankey in 1896

Dan Leno, famous for his Dames, as Widow Twankey in 1896

As a child, I thought Aladdin lived just down the road from Ali Baba, in a land of camels and date palms—but listeners the world over like tales of exotic lands, and apparently the original Arabian folktale set Aladdin in China.   That China, however, is a land where shops close on Friday to observe the Muslim holy day, and the inhabitants are called by names such as Mustapha (according to my edition of the Arabian Nights).   The panto version sticks to the original as far as setting the scene in China—but not much beyond that.

In the world of panto, Aladdin’s Chinese mother conforms to English stereotype by running a laundry, which seems a bit culturally insensitive, but…okay; there must be laundries in China and somebody has to run them, presumably somebody Chinese, as it’s doubtful there’s a long-running cultural exchange program whereby English people run laundries in Beijing.  Aladdin’s brother, a laundry worker, is called Wishee Washee (hmmmm…) and their mother is called Widow Twankey—a name that comes from the supposedly Chinese brand-name of a low-grade tea once sold in Britain, chosen to hint that she’s past her prime, since that tea consisted of old leaves.  But then we come to the Emperor’s guards, a trio of Keystone-style cops—Woo, Choo, and Poo—who’re played as fools, and who swap their Rs for Ls.  They appear several times, “rooking for Araddin”, and talk about practicing karate, a Japanese art, as if Asian cultures were interchangeable.  With their entrance, the play descends so far into stereotype that in the US it would be frankly offensive, but it’s cheerfully accepted here as just good fun.

The Emporer and Wishee Washee, played by mother-and-daughter team Jo and Amy Heaphy.  I loved the orange hightops!

The Emperor and Wishee Washee, played by mother-and-daughter team Jo and Amy Heaphy. I loved the orange hightops!

We wondered, at our neighborhood production of Aladdin this year, what the family sitting next to us, clearly from some far-eastern country and very possibly Chinese, would think. To go by their reaction, Asian immigrants don’t mind.  And the girls playing the Emperor’s Keystone-like guards were, just like the girls playing Aladdin, Wishee Washee, and Rosebud (equivalent of Disney’s Princess Jasmin), so beautiful, they just glowed—despite enormous false moustaches, in the case of the guards.  You couldn’t help but cheer them.

This Aladdin, performed for friends, parents, and locals in a church hall, was a blast, every bit as much fun as a professional panto with big-budget bells and whistles.  Nobody minded when the villain, still in character, dropped suddenly off the script, following a silence after “Noooow, Aladdin…”, with “Noooow, Aladdin, I have forgotten my line”.  Somebody offstage helped, and the whole effect was so charming, it seemed inspired.  They ought to write such things into the scripts on purpose.

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The Genie of the Lamp (Andy Wells) with two members of the chorus: Emily Moulden (left) and Ellie Wells (right), daughter of the Genie himself

For all I know, they have.  It’s traditional to change lines in the script, to add bad jokes (“My dog can talk!  How’re you feeling?” “Ruff!”  “What’s that on the tree?” “Bark!”) or to namecheck local places and personalities.  Characters in the local Aladdin went up the Farnham Road from Onslow Village, and saw the Hog’s Back—all local features, neither Chinese nor Arabian.  It all adds to the wacky (UK-ians might say “daft”) humour of panto that gives us a Wishee Washee in orange hightops, a Chinese/Arabian chorus singing Michael Jackson, and a Genie of the Ring who keeps a can of beer (UK: tin of lager) under her turban and whose theme song, played at her every entrance, is Nokia’s default ring-tone—get it? Get it?)

The Genie of the Ring meets her public (drink in hand!) after the show

The Genie of the Ring meets her public (drink in hand!) after the show

All over Britain, churches, amateur dramatics societies, and community groups put on local pantos at Christmas-time, while for professional actors, pantos are big business.  Sir Ian McKellan took time off from being Gandalf a while back to play Widow Twankey;  John Barrowman (of Doctor Who and Torchwood) defied tradition to take the part of Aladdin (in a production visited by Daleks) several years in a row; and a famous soap star (Steve McFadden of Eastenders) reportedly earned £200,000 (about US$300,000) as Captain Hook in a production about 5 miles from my house.  You can find them in the National Database of Pantomime Performance along with the smaller fry, and you’ll see there that some of these larger productions actually continue into March.

No, really–March.  So, do you think Christmas is over?  Oh, n—  Well, now you know what to say.


Filed under Arts, Culture, Current events

The shortest, least-hyped-up piece you’ll read about the new royal baby

A couple of weeks ago I started getting requests from American readers to write about the excitement over here  surrounding the wait for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s new baby.

The only problem was that…there wasn’t much excitement.  There was much less excitement than there’d been about the wedding, but that’s only natural in that the wedding was a big public spectacle and everybody was  getting the day off work.  Now, if the birth came with a national holiday and we all got a day off, that would be different.

There was a bit of a stir of the “Did you hear?” variety when the Duchess’ pregnancy was announced in mid-December, and then pretty much nothing.  Now, I don’t read the tabloids, it’s true, and for all I know, the Daily Mail, the Sun, and other papers of that ilk were speculating right and left–I wouldn’t know.  Nobody I knew talked about it, and I’m guessing the press was politely leaving the poor girl alone to get over her morning sickness.

The first talk I heard of the baby, among all my friends and neighbours, in all of 2013, came when celebrating my friend Jocelyn’s birthday at the pub a couple of weeks ago, when the guest of honour said she’d been hoping the baby would hold off and not be born on her birthday.  And I said “Oh, is the baby due?”  and she said “Yes, it’s overdue”.  That was kind of it.

One of my friends admitted on Facebook that until he heard of the birth he hadn’t realized the Duchess was expecting, and a chorus of his friends chided him for being out of touch, so clearly there were people who thought we all ought to be on top of this blessed event.  The media coverage is pretty low-key though; we are updated every so often by news that the Queen is thrilled, that Prince Charles is thrilled, that Camilla is thrilled, and so forth.

I am interested in what name they’ll choose–no question they’ll tag the little mite with a name out of history, but which one?  The bookmakers are getting rich on people’s guesses, so in some quarters it must be hotly debated, but I haven’t heard a word other than from some stories on the internet news sites (mostly about the bookies).

So I’m sincerely pleased for the royal parents and wish them and the baby all the best, and…that’s about it.  Sorry.


Filed under Current events

An English Christmas 3 (Revisited) : Bring Us a Figgy Pudding

This post, part of the sequence that first ran in the Christmas season of 2010, should have been gone live yesterday, but my hosting duties got in the way of my posting duties.  Hope you’ll enjoy the original post and updates in any case.

Don’t want to make your own? posts this photo with a suggestion that you buy your pudding from Fortnum & Mason.

It’s Christmas day as I write this so, since I’ve told you about Christmas cake and mince pies, there’s just time to tell you about Christmas pudding before the holiday is over, and I’ll have covered the Big Three.

Christmas pudding is traditionally a steamed concoction of dried fruits and suet held together with a minimal amount of breadcrumbs or flour. It’s also called plum pudding, but doesn’t have plums and probably never did; the name comes from the prunes that it used to have and that some recipes still call for.

Update: But as I learned from a guest at Christmas dinner yesterday, at one time raisins could be called plums.  In fact, any fruit that in any way resembled a plum could be called one; the Oxford English Dictionary features a quote from the 18th century in which somebody refers to a “great Plum” that “is called Mango”.  Hmmm.

Some recipes use a lot of dried figs; puddings like today’s Christmas pudding probably inspired the “bring us a figgy pudding” line in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”.

And Christmas puddings are soaked with spirits—as is pretty much everything in the United Kingdom at Christmastime, including the inhabitants.

There are some pleasant traditions associated with Christmas pudding. For starters, for at least the last 150 years there’s been a tradition that everyone in the household should take a turn stirring the pudding, and the longer you stir, the more good luck you’ll have in the next year. Clearly some sly cook 150 years ago came up with this as a labour-saving idea.

In another tradition, the cook adds coins or other inedible prizes to the pudding, and each diner has a chance of finding one—if not breaking a tooth on it. Christmas puddings are best eaten carefully.

Originally the prizes were coins, and if you found one in your portion, you got to keep it. Nowadays it’s more likely that the cook will stir in symbolic objects, little trinkets about the size of charms on a charm bracelet, though the symbolism varies from family to family. For some, a tiny horseshoe means good luck, or a tiny anchor means you’ll find a safe harbour (which could be interpreted as a new home, a new job, or anything else you like).

Here again, I’m lucky enough to have heirlooms handed down from my mother-in-law. In our Christmas puddings, you might find a silver sixpence, a button, a thimble, or a ring said to be a grandmother’s wedding ring, though if it was, the grandmother must have had truly tiny hands. The coin predicts wealth in the new year, the button says you’ll get new clothes, the thimble means plenty of work, and the ring stands for love. (You can keep the luck, but you have to give the prizes themselves back. In the first place, they don’t make silver sixpences anymore.)

We had our Christmas pudding earlier today—flaming Christmas pudding at that. You pour warmed brandy over the pudding and put a match to it. If you dim the lights before dessert, it looks pretty impressive, with blue flames flickering all over and around the dark pudding. And in case there isn’t enough liquor involved in the making of the pudding or the flaming of the pudding, you serve it with a hard sauce made of butter, sugar and brandy, that melts over the hot pudding.

I was asked for fruitcake recipes after the Christmas cake article, so I’ve put recipes for Christmas cake and for Christmas pudding in the Featured Link section (right hand side of the screen). My favorite Christmas pudding comes from a chef called Nigel Slater; his is the only one I’ve seen that calls for dried apricots. The first time I made it, I didn’t have all the dried fruits it called for, so I substituted more apricots for anything I didn’t have, the result was fabulous, and now I add extra apricots on purpose.

Of course, you’re supposed to make the pudding ahead—in earlier times, some people made the pudding at New Year’s and kept it to eat at the following Christmas. For those who don’t have time for such things, or confidence that a pudding made 12 months ago is still edible, there are plenty of Christmas puddings in the supermarkets, most of them in microwaveable bowls so there’s no steaming.

Or you could order Christmas pudding at High Timber, a restaurant in London that serves the dish, but only to diners who sign a legal waiver. They’re afraid you’ll sue if you chip a tooth, or swallow one of the charms. A serving isn’t cheap, either, at £7, but that’s because you get to keep the charms—and they come from Tiffany’s.

Merry Christmas!


Filed under Culture, Current events, Food, History

An English Christmas 2 (Revisited): Mince Pies In Royal David’s City

Happy Christmas! Or if you’re American, Merry Christmas! This post first ran on Christmas Even 2010, but the ritual is the same…

When I lived in the US, Christmas always seemed to start just after Thanksgiving. Sure, there were Christmas displays up in some stores before that, but only to give people something to grumble about. We knew that it wasn’t open season on Christmas until Santa Claus showed up at the end of Macy’s parade.

Here in the UK there’s no national celebration in late November, so there’s no natural or definitive start to the Christmas season; it just creeps up on you. But there is, for many people, an accepted starting point for Christmas itself: at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve when BBC radio broadcasts the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from the chapel of King’s College in Cambridge. (I’ve put a link to it on the right-hand side of this page under Featured Links; the BBC will leave the recording there for people to listen to only for the next seven days, so if you’re interested, don’t wait.)

I listen every year, maybe because singing in a choir is the closest I ever got to playing a team sport, I still love the sound and remember what it feels like to perform, and I don’t have that many opportunities during the rest of the year to hear a really good choir. They usually do some of the medieval carols that I love anyway, but that are especially satisfying when sung in a medieval mini-cathedral like this “chapel”, built over a hundred years from the middle of the 15th century to the middle of the 16th. Why start Christmas at King’s? It’s traditional. But if you need more of a reason, you might be interested to find that King’s College is officially named “The King’s College of Our Lady and St Nicholas in Cambridge”, so there’s a pretty good connection to Christmas built in.

Some of the carols everybody knows here have the same words that Americans sing, but set to different tunes, and the British also have lots of Christmas carols I never heard until I moved here. Did any American readers out there grow up singing “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree”? One of these new-to-me carols, “Once In Royal David’s City”, sung by one choirboy alone, always starts the service. As I understand it, two or three choirboys have practiced the part, but no one knows who will do the solo until everyone is in place, the director raises his hands, and finally indicates who is to sing. That, I’m told, is supposed to stop them from being so nervous.

Right. If I were one of them, the suspense would crank me up to peaks of anxiety I can scarcely imagine. It gives me palpitations just to think about it.

They also include modern carols, some of them commissioned for this Festival, either this year or in previous years; maybe these will grow on me, but they seem dark and muddy. Okay, the words may sound silly, but give me “Ding Dong Merrily On High” any time. Some of the modern compositions seem to have been stripped of any scrap of the joy and goodwill that make some of the traditional songs such a treat.

And speaking of treats—I was in the kitchen making my mince pies while I listened. That’s the second of the three English Christmas desserts. The British serve these little tarts with brandy butter, but that’s going too far for me; I want to taste the joy and goodwill of the brandy and orange zest, sharp and clear, and not muddy them up with cream.

So bring on Christmas. I’ve got the mince pies made and I’ve heard the little boy start the carols; I’m ready.


Filed under Culture, Current events, Food

An English Christmas (Revisited): Part 1

Most current subscribers and readers have been following my Anglo-American Experience for less than a couple of years, so I’m taking the liberty of reposting, this year, a series of Christmas posts from 2010.  I’m not updating it, although there’s no snow this year, which might be a shame; then again there’s no probablem with BT’s phone lines this year, which is a definite plus.  In any case, I hope you enjoy it, and I wish you a happy mid-winter festival, whichever one you may celebrate.

It snowed last week and for a while the world outside my window looked like a Christmas card—well, that is, if your Christmas card picture of snowy English countryside includes a British Telecom engineer up on a telephone pole.

Americans often romanticize England—no BT engineers allowed—and almost everybody romanticizes Christmas. So what is a modern Christmas actually like in our part of England? I’m going to have to take that question a little bit at a time, and I’ve left it rather late. I’ll start with food—in fact, I’ll start with just one dish.

The three wise men on a Christmas cake.

There are three traditional desserts at Christmas. It’s not that people choose one of the three; they generally offer them all. Many Americans will have heard of the most important one, Christmas pudding (also called plum pudding), even if they’ve never tasted it. The majority of English people would think a Christmas dinner that didn’t end with Christmas pudding was incomplete. Then there are mince pies the size of small tarts, which are more informal and are served not just on Christmas day but throughout the season to guests who drop by, or at teatime—or to guests who drop by at tea time. But the one I hadn’t heard of before my first Yule in England is Christmas cake.

First, you have to realize that the English idea of fruitcake is very different from the American “let this cake pass from me” attitude. British readers may not be aware that fruitcakes are objects of derision in American popular culture, right up there with accordions. (I was living in Belgium when I first saw the Far Side cartoon in which those entering heaven are issued their harps, and those entering hell are issued their accordions. My Belgian colleagues didn’t understand why I thought that was funny—one of the guys even said “My mother plays the accordion”—so I didn’t try to explain.)

Everybody in the US has heard tales of fruitcakes that are never eaten, but that make the rounds from new giver to new recipient every Christmas for decades, Christmas being virtually the only time that Americans eat fruitcake. The British wouldn’t necessarily get the humour in that; on the whole, they like fruitcake. If you’re invited over for someone’s birthday the cake will probably be a fruitcake, wedding cakes are traditionally fruitcakes, and no British summer picnic is complete without fruitcake.

An English Christmas cake is a fruitcake topped with a layer of marzipan, then royal icing, and finally decorations, which can be as simple as a ribbon tied around the cake, or very, very elaborate. You can coat holly leaves in egg whites and sprinkle with sugar to look like snow, you can buy special molds to make your own sugar Christmas bells, or you can have another glass of wine and put your feet up, having bought some Christmas cake decorations ready-made and thereby bought yourself some time.

My family\’s Christmas cake decorations.

Or better yet, if you’re really lucky, someone will give you heirloom Christmas cake decorations. The ones I use were passed down to me from my mother-in-law, who was given them by an English lady when their family lived in Sudan many years ago. Being an American, my mother-in-law hadn’t heard of British Christmas cakes and didn’t realize that’s what the decorations were for, so for decades she set them up as a little Christmas scene on the sideboard. When I encountered English Christmas cakes, we realized what we had, and now I decorate our cakes with those little old-fashioned figures made of plaster, wood, and some kind of bristles (for the evergreen branches): two snowy trees, a cottage, a cockeyed snowman every bit as big as the cottage, and a tiny church over which the little Father Christmas looms like Godzilla.

I made my Christmas cake this year ridiculously late, barely more than two weeks before Christmas. You’re supposed to start about Hallowe’en. You wrap up the cake in grease-proof paper, which is something like American waxed paper, and then foil, and then shut it into a cake tin, which you open every week or so to dose the cake with liquor, which is called feeding the cake.

You’re supposed to feed the cake by trickling a teaspoon of brandy into it, but I was way behind schedule and the bottle had only about half a cup left in it, so I just gave the cake the best feeding a cake ever had and emptied the bottle. A little more never hurt, surely. In fact, I think the problem with American fruitcakes is that they don’t put enough booze into them.

Elaborate Christmas cake decorations to buy from I’ve never seen a purple Christmas cake, though.

Pretty soon it’ll be time for me to take the cake out of the tin, cover it with the marzipan, and mix up the dreadful icing which, while inedible, does cover a multitude of ills. I read about a lady whose cake came out dramatically lopsided, but she went right ahead and iced it, and decorated it with little figures of skiers, plunging down the slope. Now that’s panache.

So the icing blankets the cake in something like the way the snow blankets the landscape, and that’s a sort of romanticizing, too. The snow covers, or at least masks, all the imperfections—including the blue bathtub that the farmer across the road has in the field as a horse trough—leaving the viewer to imagine that an English Christmas is just like the ones on the Christmas cards or in the storybooks.

It’s starting to melt, but I’m hoping it’ll hang on. It’s only two days until Christmas.


Filed under Culture, Current events, Food

Remembrance Day Update on London Poppy Day

It’s Remembrance Day here, and at the end of a day full of ceremony and solemnity, I’m pleased to report that London Poppy Day (see previous post) brought in £802,000 (that’s $1,275,000)for needy veterans and soldiers and their dependents.  That’s even more impressive when you consider that last year’s total was £450,000.  As the British say, “Well done, you!”

The Queen touring a poppy factory.

Some poppies are made by hand, in factories set up to employ disabled veterans and their dependents.  Click here to follow a link to a YouTube video of the Queen visiting a poppy factory, and making her own poppy to wear.


Filed under Culture, Current events

London Poppy Day

(I’m supposed to be writing about Blake and Parry and “Jerusalem”, but blogging is a kind of journalism, so I’ve got to consider current events, too—and they don’t stay current for long.  Besides, as Arlo Guthrie says, “You cain’t always do what ya s’posed to do”.  I’ll get back to “Jerusalem” soon, but in the meantime…)

A member of 23 Engineers collects donations and distributes poppies at Waterloo Station in London on Nov 1.  He’s a communication specialist, as my father was in WWII; when I described what my father did in the Pacific, this soldier said it’s much the same task today.

Every year in late October Britons start wearing little paper poppies in buttonholes or pinned to lapels, until by about November 3rd, almost everyone you meet—and certainly everybody you see presenting a programme or reading the news on network television—will have a little red paper flower on show.  And they—no, we—will be wearing them through November 11th, Remembrance Day, aka Armistice Day, aka Poppy Day.

You get your poppy, and a pin to hold it on, from someone collecting donations on behalf of the Royal British Legion.  The money goes to help veterans and serving military personnel or their dependents who are in need; the poppy is meant to remember the fallen in all of the wars, chosen because of the poem, well-known on both sides of the Atlantic, that begins

In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row…

(You’ll also find the first line given as “In Flanders fields the poppies blow”.  The Wikipedia page for the poem gives the word as blow right next to an image of the handwritten poem that clearly has the line ending in grow.  Since the handwritten copy is from the poet—Canadian military physician Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae—and has his signature, I’m going to assume the word should be grow.)

Members of the King’s Royal Hussars, a cavalry regiment, gearing up to go collect donations and give out poppies at Waterloo Station. Yes, we still have cavalry units; they deal with tanks and other armored fighting vehicles.  I’m extremely sorry that these pictures are such low quality; you can’t tell that they wear distinctive red trousers (they call them crimson; Americans would call them maroon).  Because of their red finery, they’re nicknamed the Cherrypickers.

I happened to pass through Waterloo Station in London yesterday, and saw more than the usual number of veterans and soldiers out collecting money and handing out poppies.  By their uniforms, they were from all different regiments, too.  There had to be something out of the ordinary going on, so I asked around, and found myself speaking to Jeremy Stephenson, one of the founders of London Poppy Day.

Seven years ago, he and a few friends collected donations outside one London Underground station and raised £500 for that year’s Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal.  The project has grown a bit: this year Mayor Boris Johnson zoomed up the Thames in a Royal Navy RIB (rigid inflatable boat) to kick off London Poppy Day, carrying a plastic poppy several times bigger than his head as he boarded HMS Severn ; military bands played at locations all around London; Military Wives, the surprise hit of a recent reality television programme for choirs, performed; and a real Spitfire aircraft visited Covent Garden.  And over 2000 volunteers from the British Army, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, and several City firms (you can think of the City as similar to Wall Street) collecting at over 60 railway and Underground stations aimed to raise £1,000,000—in twelve hours.

A member of the London Irish Rifles collecting donations at Waterloo Station. He declined to let me photograph his face, but he did take my pound coin and give me a poppy. I watched while a couple with two small kids came up, and the kids were each given a coin to throw into the bucket and helped to put on their poppies–another generation taking up the tradition. What are the chances we can stop sending kids to war before those two are old enough to go?

I stopped to speak to a couple of the soldiers collecting.  I’m in awe of people willing to put themselves in so much danger on behalf of someone else, though I don’t understand, actually, why we’re still asking people to do that; it’s 2012, and I should have thought we’d be clever enough by now to figure out a way to avoid having to send young people off to shoot at each other.

But the day we work out a better way for all of us to share the same planet is going to be a long time coming, and until then we have to deal with war and its aftermath; this isn’t news, I know, but it’s one thing to see photos of soldiers in Iraq, watch video interviews from army camps in Afghanistan, or cheer for Paralympic athletes who lost limbs while in uniform, and it’s something else again to speak face to face with someone who has been there; who feels that he’s lucky to have come back; who admits that he’s lost friends; who agrees with me, when I say that the job must be terrifying, that it is terrifying; but who’s still a soldier.  It is in fact staggering that people do this at all, and especially when you can see how young they are; I talked to a veteran who, at age 25, commanded men who turned 18 on active duty in Kosovo.

Mr Trevaskis, who comes to my front door every year collecting for the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal.

And that’s why I always get a poppy and wear it.  I’ve read opinion pieces explaining why the writers choose not to wear poppies (which shows you how common it is to wear one; not wearing a poppy is an aberration that requires an explanation): this one believes that the government should take care of veterans and dependents and not leave them to rely on charity, and that one feels that the poppies that once signaled “Never again” have changed meaning over the years, since the warfare we say we don’t want somehow never seems to stop.  But these aren’t theoretical soldiers who shouldn’t have to fight, they’re real human beings who have fought and who I’m sure want to see an end to war more fervently than the rest of us.  And yes, the government shouldn’t leave veterans and dependents out in the cold, but when it comes to needy people and charity– well, saying  “someone else should do it” doesn’t get you much of anywhere.

Young people still put themselves in danger for others, hoping to do good, making huge sacrifices; I respect them, and thank them, and wear a poppy.


Filed under Culture, Current events

The Windrush

Continuing the series on aspects of Britishness that appeared in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics.

A group of Victorian industrialists, played by a multiracial (admittedly mostly white) cast of actors in the opening ceremony of the Olympics, 2012

After the opening ceremony for the London Olympics, some British political figures said the presentation had been too political, that it had too left-wing an agenda, and reports here seem to show that some Americans agreed.

I’m left (as it were) struggling to see how a production introduced by a Greek chorus of Victorian industrialists can be seen as left-leaning.  Okay, under those top hats and behind that facial hair we saw skin tones not normally seen in British boardrooms of the period, but surely no one could have thought the production was meant to be realistic—the stylized movements of industrialists and workers were a bit of a giveaway.  Any way you look at it, those guys represented the economic powers behind the industrial revolution, which was hardly a socialist love fest.  As right-leaning mayor of London Boris Johnson even said (though not in these words), the Eton Boating Song and the Queen of England are icons, and not ones associated with the proletariat.

Over here, BBC commentators told us the theme of the evening was revolution, from the industrial to the digital, but perhaps change would be a better characterization.  Yes, votes for women was once a revolutionary idea, but surely nobody today would argue that including suffragettes reveals a left-wing agenda.

An articulated model of the Empire Windrush enters the arena in the opening ceremony.

Other countries were free to cut whatever portions of the production they didn’t like, and the USA made some surprising cuts, including a nod to the social revolution British people refer to with the shorthand “the Windrush”.  I sat down today thinking “Surely a good many readers of this column must have wondered why a model ship came into the arena, accompanied by a lot of well-dressed black people carrying suitcases”—but then I read that NBC cut that sequence, so today I find myself answering a question nobody asked: What’s the Windrush, and why include it?

The British vessel Empire Windrush started life as the Monte Rosa, a cruise ship built in Hamburg in the early 1930s.  The Monte Rosa became part of the Nazis’ Strength Through Joy program/programme (the party rewarded deserving members with cruises), and eventually part of the German war effort.  She stayed in military service but changed sides when the British captured and renamed her in 1945, adding her to a series of troopships with two-word names beginning Empire and ending with the name of a UK waterway.

Newbridge, spanning the Thames near the confluence of the Thames and the Windrush (photo courtesy of Wikipedia and used under the Creative Commons license)

(The Windrush is a minor river that joins the Thames way upstream in Oxfordshire at Newbridge, a bridge so named, rather unimaginatively, because it was the newest of three built in the area.  By monks.  During the reign of King John.  So it must have been before 1216, though the existing stonework dates only (only!) to the 1300s.  I wonder what people will call the proposed modern bridge that is being considered, which if built would give Newbridge some relief;  its 600-year old stonework is beginning to show wear.  They could instead consider raising funds for bridge maintenance the way people did back then: get a bridge hermit.  It sounds like something out of a folktale, but apparently you built a hermitage at the foot of the bridge, installed a hermit, and got your hermit, when not doing his daily hermiting, to collect contributions from travelers.)

The real Empire Windrush (photo courtesy of Wikipedia and used under the Creative Commons license)

But when most British people today refer to the Windrush, they don’t mean the river or even the ship, but specifically the voyage it made in 1948 from Australia to England via Jamaica.  Ads in Jamaican newspapers offered inexpensive berths to encourage relocation to the UK to help bulk up a labour force depleted by the war, and so the Windrush brought what’s generally taken to be the first substantial group of Caribbean immigrants.  Nearly 500 people took up the offer (and at least one stowed away), mostly Jamaicans and Trinidadians, some to join the Royal Air Force, some just to get a look at Britain, some to make a new life, but most to make good and then go home again—though mostly they stayed.  (As my own much less dramatic and completely historically unimportant 2- to 3-year British adventure has lasted 13 years so far, I understand how this can happen.)

Actors playing passengers disembarking from the Windrush

These were mostly skilled people, not the ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ who come to mind when most Americans think about groups of immigrants.  Some had places to stay, but authorities found beds for those who didn’t in the Clapham South deep shelter, one of 8 air-raid shelters dug during the war with the idea that afterwards they would be used as tunnels for London Underground (US: subway).  That was prophetic for the many Windrush passengers who eventually went to work on trains or buses. (In the 1950s, the UK held recruitment drives in the Caribbean specifically to hire bus drivers.  That came up on my citizenship test, actually.)  As for the rest, a sizeable contingent went to work for the newly formed National Health Service.

More actors playing more Windrush passengers

The closest Employment Exchange (now Jobcentre Plus; US: Unemployment Office) was in Brixton, so some looked for lodgings in that part of London, which still has strong associations with what’s called here the West Indian or the Afro-Caribbean community.  On the 50th anniversary of the landing of the Windrush, one of the squares in Brixton was renamed Windrush Square.  Scholars, historians, and teachers use phrases such as the “Windrush Generation”, and “pre-Windrush Britain”, and there’s a move afoot to have a national Windrush Day.

Two kids from the choir singing “Flower of Scotland” in the opening ceremony: one a lass with traditional Scottish red hair and freckles, one a lad with dark skin and a charming gap-toothed smile; both adorable, both British.

Everybody here recognizes the Windrush as a symbol of modern, multicultural Britain.  (It’s a shame that NBC didn’t.)  The Angles and the Saxons were after all just immigrants who got here earlier (okay, about 2 millennia earlier). There were Afro-Caribbean communities in Britain by the 18th century; the Windrush passengers weren’t the first, but the Windrush stands for the larger, post-war changes in the complexion and the complexity of the British population, and the contributions of recent immigrants—some from Commonwealth countries, some from non-Anglo-Saxon peoples—to the cultural mix.

Today in British boardrooms you are liable to see some of the different skin tones we saw in the opening ceremony’s group of industrialists (and–gasp!–you might even see a woman).  And if that’s a left-wing agenda, that’s okay by me.

Note: Belatedly it occurs to me that whatever your nationality, if you’ve read Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel Small Island you may know something about the Windrush already.  I hope you feel you know more now, and that it’s worth knowing.

[Images from the opening ceremony itself are screen shots; I'm assuming that as it was a BBC broadcast and I'm a taxpayer, I have the right to use the image for a nonprofit purpose.]


Filed under Culture, Current events, History, Sports, Travel

The Shipping Forecast

Rockall by Peter Collyer, from his book Rain Later, Good. Used by permission.
Original caption — too small to be read here and so not reproduced — reads:
Southerly 4 backing southeasterly then increasing 6 to gale 8 perhaps gale 9.
Showers then rain.
Good becoming moderate.

I’ve mentioned before how the British see themselves as seafarers; you don’t have to look far for web pages such as “The Importance of Ships to Our Island Nation”  or for lines such as  “As an island nation, [the sea] occupies a special place in our national psyche.”

Admittedly, Britain doesn’t have a good climate for grass skirts, nor exotic native plants for making flowery leis—though we can make a mean daisy chain over here—but the British are islanders nonetheless, and life for many people here depends on what the British call the sea and Americans would more usually call the ocean.  However you refer to it, it can be treacherously changeable.  To keep tabs on what the sea is doing, mariners turn to BBC Radio 4 for the Shipping Forecast on FM or long wave several times a day, but the one I’m familiar with is at 0048 (12 minutes to 1:00 in the morning).  It’s the first one of the day, I suppose, but we landlubbers think of it as the last one.  The Shipping Forecast is like a bedtime story; we go to sleep with it.

So when the Shipping Forecast faded into Elgar’s “Nimrod” at the opening ceremony of the Olympics, I knew that the production that evening was going to be about ordinary, everyday Britain—the real Britain as I know it.  The lines they used were:

…24 hours.  North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth.  Mainly easterly or northeasterly 4, occasionally 5.  Fog patches. Moderate, occasionally very poor.  Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber, Thames, Dover. North or northeast 4 or 5, occasionally 6.  Fog patches. Moderate, occasionally very poor.  Wight, Portland…

Sea Areas.
(Map from Wikipedia, used under the Creative Commons license.)

The numbers give the strength of the wind on the Beaufort scale, moderate and poor refer to visibility, and the names are the names of sea areas, which I’ll get to in a minute.  The information comes from the Met Office, Britain’s official weather service (a modernized name; it used to be the Meteorological Office), but the Shipping Forecast is more than the sum of its data.

The words themselves, given in concise language for brevity and clarity, come across with the compactness and rhythm of poetry. Taken altogether, they  have the comforting repetitive effect of a litany, even when the announcer is calmly warning craft of a force 10 gale.  Elisabeth Mahoney wrote in The Guardian  of the Shipping Forecast’s “talismanic, haunting power”; a recent AP article  called it a “melodic and soothing chant”, “a reminder that even in the jet age, Britain is an island nation where much depends on the movement of the sea.”

So it’s a litany, a chant, and in at least one context, has been likened to prayer; Carol Ann Duffy, one of several poets who’ve used bits of the Shipping Forecast in their work,  puts words from the Forecast at the intersection of poetry and religious incantation.  Duffy, the current poet laureate and the first woman, the first Scot, and the first out gay person to have the title, ends her poem “Prayer” with:

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer —

Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

(Read the full poem by clicking here .)

I first heard the shipping forecast long before I visited England—and must have had no idea back then what I was hearing—when Jethro Tull released the album Stormwatch.  In between verses of “North Sea Oil”, you can hear:

Viking, Forties, Fisher. Northwest backing west, 4 or 5.

Dogger, German Bight. Northwest 5 or 6, occasionally gale 8.

There’s a good map of these sea areas on Wikipedia (click here).    The recitation always begins with Viking and then works its way around, mainly clockwise,  in an established order.  I notice that Carol Ann Duffy disrupted that order for her poem even though the names themselves could be taken, as is, to be found poetry ; scholarly articles have actually been written on the Shipping Forecast as poetry.

If you choose a section of the list of sea areas carefully you can even find, without changing the word order, what I like to call found doggerel:

Dogger, Fisher, German Bight,

Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight

Poets may recite the areas out of order for effect, but other changes creep in that might make you think poets were taking even more liberties than they are, because the names of the sea areas sometimes change.  North and South Utsire (pronounced uht-SIH-ruh) were carved out of Viking in 1984; and as recently as 2002, since I’ve lived in the UK,  the more musical Finisterre was renamed Fitzroy.  Both changes were made to  coordinate the British names with those used by other European countries, though I’d put money on the British versions having been established earlier than others.  (Yes, I should look it up, but I’m tired of entering links into this column, sorry.)

A whimsical painting of a paintbrush-wielding puffin listening to the Shipping Forecast, from Rain Later, Good. Original caption reads “And that ends The Shipping Forecast.  The next will be at…” Used by permission of Peter Collyer.

So those are the Shipping Forecast basics.  There are other intricacies, such as that the shipping forecast, at certain times of day, includes notes about the conditions in inshore waters, meaning areas no more than 12 miles from shore.  These include data from coastal [weather] stations, including buoys that function as lighthouses  in waters too deep for building a stationary lighthouse.  So you’ll hear references to, say, observations taken at Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic.

If you wonder about these places—where they are and what they look like—I can recommend the book Rain Later, Good by Peter Collyer.  Mr Collyer is a watercolorist who has traveled to all the sea areas painting seascapes or landscapes-with-sea-coast of each.  You can find his web site under “Featured Links” on the right-hand side of this blog.

Radio 4 signs off every night with the Shipping Forecast, preceded by an orchestra playing a piece in waltz time called “Sailing By” (though I’ve read that was written with hot-air balloon flight in mind), which is sort of horribly wonderful.  It’s sentimental schmaltz—which is probably redundant, but I think my British readers may not be used to the word schmaltz so I had to add sentimental—but has a nostalgic pull that seems to function in this country something like “Happy Trails” does in the US.  The music is convenient because you can fill up time with it or shorten it if you need to, should the preceding programme run short or long, and it’s distinctive—nobody would broadcast that stuff for any other reason—and alerts seafarers that they’ve found the right radio frequency.

After the music, we get the Shipping Forecast complete with inshore waters, a brief weather forecast for those on land, a quick goodnight from whatever presenter is still on duty in what I imagine to be a studio showing the only light in a darkened BBC building, and then the National Anthem.  It feels like being tucked into bed; all’s right with the world.

I’ll sign off now with a complete list of the sea areas.  God Save the Queen.  Sleep well.

Cromarty by Peter Collyer from Rain Later, Good. Used by permission. The original caption reads:
Northerly backing westerly 3 or 4, increasing 6 later.


North Utsire

South Utsire







German Bight









FitzRoy (was Finisterre)




Irish Sea






Fair Isle


Southeast Iceland


Filed under Arts, Culture, Current events

Opening Ceremony 2012:

The ceremony may be old news, but the items director Danny Boyle chose as illustrations of Britishness could easily be a blueprint for a blog like mine, celebrating the differences between US and UK life.  This is the intro to a series of posts treating items in the opening ceremony that foreigners might not have understood.

Official London 2012 Olympics logo in official colors (the one on the left is for the Paralympics). The shapes are intended to read 2012 but to my eye this is…not obvious.

It’s ironic that the Olympics turns so many people into couch potatoes for the duration, sitting on sofas watching the fittest people in sports (UK English: in sport) leap and twist and run and throw.  And it’s also ironic that an event that everyone is at pains to say promotes harmony between nations should be so overtly nationalistic, not least at the opening ceremonies, where the trick is to balance two human impulses: to celebrate the characteristics of your own tribe and to welcome visitors from other tribes.

This time last week British newspaper critics were having a field day (pun intended) with the opening ceremony; almost all of them praised it. Over here, we’d speculated for months.  Could we compete with Beijing’s staggeringly beautiful ceremony?  Would we try?  Should we try?  The  thousands upon thousands of volunteers and professionals who took part had done a medal-worthy job of keeping the secret, and in fact the participants didn’t necessarily know much about what was planned beyond the part they were to appear in.  Director Danny Boyle’s #savethesurprise campaign on Twitter helped, too.

The countdown clock in Trafalgar Square.

In the event (pun also intended), he gave us a tribute to the real, everyday United Kingdom that I know and love.  An ex-pat has divided loyalties;  I’m required once by birth and once by my oath to give 100% allegiance to each of two countries, but on the opening night, I was British and proud of it.

Okay, the giant baby was creepy, I didn’t really need the boy-meets-girl business, and some of the singers had serious problems with pitch (could they not hear themselves properly?), but most of the evening I was smiling, a few times I was cheering, and a couple of times I almost jumped up off the couch, which is the most athletic thing I’ve done since because the BBC is providing 26 television channels showing all the sports.  At our house these days you hear things like “I’m going to the gym this afte—Wait!  Is that the second qualifying heat for the kayak slalom?  I’ve gotta watch that.”

Watching the ceremony, though, I kept wondering what people outside the UK made of it.  I’m sure I didn’t catch all the references myself, and I live here.  Bernadette McNulty suggested in The Telegraph that foreigners might think it was the “strangest episode of Downton Abbey they’ve ever seen”, and a quick canvas of American friends turned up boredom, puzzlement, and outright mystification along with praise–some faint and some with enthusiasm, at least for a few bits of the evening here and there.

Needs no caption.

But as for me, I was hooked as soon as I heard the shipping forecast. Again, I wasn’t the only one; Mick Brown in the same newspaper said “Who cares what [foreigners] thought? This was our opening ceremony and if we want to include the Shipping Forecast…then we will.”

So tomorrow, or maybe even later today, I’ll tell you about the shipping forecast and why I leaped off the couch (okay, maybe I just sat upright, punched the air, and said “Yes!  The Shipping Forecast!”) because this opening ceremony was about my Britain.  And then, in the next few posts, I’ll tell you about other aspects of the UK that the opening ceremony referred to, but that viewers outside the UK might not have understood.  And if any of you are still wondering things like “Who was the guy with the cigar?” or “Why did it say GOSH in the center of the stadium?”, I hope you’ll write and ask.  I’ll give you the best answers I can, but right now, I’ve got to switch the channel from the track and field to the trampoline gymnastics, while the digital recorder captures the equestrian show jumping.  And tonight if I’m lucky I’ll use the BBC web site’s  “catch up” feature to see the archery, or maybe the swimming.
All photos taken from Wikipedia and used under the Creative Commons license.


Filed under Culture, Current events, Sports